"Ship of Fools" is a love song, pure and simple. The highlight is Robert Plant's singing. He pulls out the best of the tender parts of his range with this one.
This was the second single from Plant's, Now and Zen, Plant's fourth solo album and his most successful. His previous three albums hadn't been flops, but Now and Zen was on another level.
Plant started making the album with an ambitious vision. He wanted to make the era's electronic music, which was widely considered soulless and plastic, into something that captured the most vital and human aspects of traditional rock and roll and blues. He wanted to be a trailblazer.
In 1988 he told Chuck Eddy of Creem, "I want to cut through radio with a hot knife, this idea where they say, 'We're only gonna play stuff guaranteed on being a big hit.' I wanna stretch it out some. People like Tom Verlaine and Hüsker Dü are making quite important music right now, and people aren't hearing it because it never gets played."
With the success of Now and Zen, Plant had seemingly achieved his goal. Yet, in 2005 he gave an interview in which he said that the electronic aspects hurt the music. Talking to Nigel Williamson of Uncut ("Good Times, Bad Times," Uncut, May 2005), he said that in hindsight the music feels "lost in the technology of the time." So, he'd done what he intended at the time with Now and Zen, but later decided that maybe what he intended wasn't all that cool.
Plant wrote this song with Phil Johnstone. On his previous three solo albums, he'd co-written with bandmates Paul Martinez, Jezz Woodroffe, and Robbie Blunt, none of whom played on Now and Zen. Johnstone also co-produced the album with Plant and Tim Palmer.
The song peaked at #84 on the Billboard Hot 100 on September 2, 1988. It also reached #3 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart and #76 on the UK single charts.
"Ship Of Fools" was used in "Freefall," the final episode of the '80s crime drama Miami Vice, which aired May 21, 1989. Miami Vice influenced television in many ways, including its use of music. The show didn't use generic made-for-TV stuff but instead spent a lot of money acquiring rights to use top pop songs of the era. Getting a song featured on the show was a significant indicator of '80s-hipdom.